I’d never met Ria Pell. But when the 44 year old restauranteur died suddenly Sunday, my Facebook feed blew up with grief. Friends described her an an honorable woman with a memorable personality. The tributes talked about her as a Memorial Drive pioneer, her presence in the LGBT community and her victorious moment in a reality show called Chopped.
Monday, I pitched her passing as a story for 11Alive news. The powers-that-be bought it, and I almost immediately regretted it.
The biggest problem was getting usable images of Ria. It put me in the uncomfortable position of asking her grieving friends to dig through photos and turn them over to me.
I thought I struck gold when I discovered that 11 Alive News had done a Unique Eats segment on Ria’s Bluebird Cafe in 2010. But Ria never appeared in the piece.
Facebook had plenty of photos, and Ria’s own page appeared to have no privacy settings. But Gannett won’t allow us to poach photos from Facebook without explicit permission from the creator of the photo.
Video from Ria’s appearance on Chopped would have helped enormously. The Food Network had a lot of cryptically-labeled video of episodes online, but it was impossible to know if the Ria episode was one of them without scrolling through each one. Our 7pm newscast producer, Molly Baker, tried gamely to wrangle some video from the Food Network. An indifferent publicist hinted that she’d try to find some video for us, then went dark. (Update: She cheerfully emailed us a 30 second clip some 18 hours after my deadline passed.)
Meantime, my 6pm deadline was rapidly approaching. This story, I knew, would get close scrutiny from people who “never watch” TV news because they think it sucks, yet would have high expectations for my 90 second piece.
As I was outside Ria’s Bluebird Cafe with photog Al Ashe, friends and patrons walked and drove up to the closed restaurant. The sign on the door attributed the closing to an unspecified “emergency.” One of them was Chris Arrison, whose lovely wife Dana works with my wife. He ended up being one of my better interviews. It also raised the stakes for me, scrutiny-wise.
Grant Henry, owner of the Edgewood Ave. bar called Church, responded to my arm twisting and did some phone work to provide photos. Holly Aguirre tried to get me video of Ria’s moment on Jim Stacy’s PBS show Get Delicious, but I couldn’t reach Stacy to get permission; he was on a plane to California at the moment I realized I needed to reach him.
Fortunately, Dyana Bagby saved my ass. The new editor of the Georgia Voice had photographed the watch party Ria had for her Chopped episode a year ago. She offered to allow us to poach her photos from LGBTQ weekly’s site.
All this distracted me from taking the time I needed to write a thoughtful piece about Ria’s passing. The worst possible thing I could have done was trotted out a bit of hastily-written hackery on this occasion. The piece was hastily written, and outside of my comfort zone. I rarely write obits.
At 5pm, after I’d completed the script, I went to the Georgia Voice site — and got a 404 error code. Dyana had told me earlier in the day that the site was having issues. I texted her — literally pleading with her to drop whatever important thing she was doing, and email me some photos. Damned if she didn’t do exactly that. And they were pretty great photos.
I presented the photos to Al Ashe, who was editing the piece, at about 5:40pm. Al did a nice job of editing it. At a crisp 1:21, it turned out the piece was not an embarrassment.
Twelve hours later, it’s one of the most-viewed stories on 11alive.com — perhaps because Ria’s friends deemed it worthy to share online.